Not the Baker, but the Bake-off – part of the Genes, Genesis, and Gods discussion
“Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.”
That has got to be one of my all-time favorite Zen zingers. When I first heard it, my response was an emphatic “yes.”
Over time, that quote began to burn like a troubling Koan. So did another all-time favorite I first met with unbridled enthusiasm. The Third Patriarch of Zen said “Enlightenment is easy if you have no preferences.” Maybe these two quotes weren’t meant as Koans. I’ve heard teachers try to resolve them simply through interpretation: “the Patriarch didn’t really mean no preferences, or maybe he meant we can have preferences but should always hold them lightly.”
Well maybe, but at their best, these quotes are kept confusing–unresolvable by conventional means, and therefore great spurs to visit unconventional frames ofreference.
Walking one night with a friend, I quoted the Third Patriarch. He stopped walking and turned to me. “Yes, and I prefer to have preferences.” I could take this as a sign of my friend’s weakness, but that would be my longing talking. The truth is that we all prefer preferences. And if the truth is waiting for eyes unclouded by longing, it will just have to wait forever. We actually have no choice in the matter.
The unconventional frame of reference that elucidates this comes from mainstream evolutionary theory. If you want a peek at the meaning of life–a peek experience–a little life-science is handy.
Richard Lewontin, the great Harvard biologist and a very Zen guy by temperament, has distilled the complex patterns of evolutionary adaptation down to three basics: replication, variation and selection.
Replication means some patterns persevere through time. Organisms make copies of themselves. As a result we see lineages sustained in a kind of “pattern retention.”
Replication. Life persists.
Variation means that the persevering patterns change over time. Offspring are never exactly like their ancestors or their siblings, so different lineages form.
Variation. Life branches.
Selection means that the environment in which the lineages persist and branch are more conducive to some of the branches persevering and less conducive to others. Selection makes for what the biologists call “differential survival to reproduction.”
Selection. Some branches persist more than others.
The net result of the interactions of Lewontin’s three basics is adaptation–the retention and proliferation of lineages that fit their selective environments.
Adaptation. The best explanation yet for how we, and all living things got our fancy traits.
In nature, selection is a passive process of interaction between environment and organism. It’s nothing personal. Some branches get what they need to persevere and proliferate. Others just don’t and therefore don’t persevere.
This passivity is hard to wrap our brains around, because our brains are so pre-occupied with preferences. To live our lives safely, we have to prefer bunnies to snakes, mates to mosquitoes, and virtue to vice. Absorbed by these healthy preferences, it is hard for us to see that natural selection doesn’t care.
In nature, there is no right or wrong. The overarching rule is simply whatever works. Spider mite larvae eat their mothers. Sixty-five percent of all organisms are parasites. Universal love means embracing that about nature.
Human love means embodying a human sense of right and wrong. We long for nature or God to endorse our view of right and wrong. With eyes unclouded we notice that the endorsement isn’t forthcoming. Can and should we prefer our version of right and wrong anyway? I think so.
Years ago, while taking a class in Biology, I went on a weekend retreat with Ram Dass, who took us on an experiential tour of the Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. I noticed right away how without contortion these three Hindu gods mapped snugly onto Lewontin’s three evolutionary basics.
Vishnu the preserver, is replication–that which makes individuals reproduce and lineages retain their patterns over time. Vishnu is life persisting.
Bramha the creator, is variation–that which gives us diversity in life. Brahma is life branching.
Shiva the destroyer, is selection–the reality-check that makes the cut with the impartial sword of decisiveness. Shiva is the environment sustaining some branches more than others.
Many years later, I found out that Meher Baba had seen a similar mapping between Hindu gods and evolution’s basic three, though he was not very Zen about it. He saw a master plan in evolution that both Zen masters and evolutionary theorists don’t see. The master plan he saw happened to be the particular spiritual transformation he was rooting for. His preference was to imagine evolution’s endorsement of his master plan, and bless him for it. Seeking that endorsement is such a human thing to do.
Ever since learning about the three evolutionary/Hindu gods, I’ve seen them everywhere, not just in biological adaptation, but culture, economics, and my own mental patterns too. There are many respected evolutionary theorists who also see adaptive patterns as pervasive beyond biology. Donald Campbell, the former president of the American Psychology Association summarizes this position, “A blind variation-and-selective-retention process is fundamental to all inductive achievements, to all genuine increases in knowledge, to all increases in fit of system to environment.” Recent research suggests that neural development, immune systems, eco-systems, and thought processes exhibit the same patterns of the basic three interacting.
Adaptation through the interaction of these three evolutionary/Hindu gods is the closest I think I’ll ever come to understanding life force. Deference to their sway in my life is the closest I’ll ever come to equanimity. Over 3.5 billion years, they made me. We swim in them and they swim in us.
This holy trinity pantheon of evolutionary/Hindu gods presents a very different perspective from the one that says we were made from scratch with one God baking us one day, like cakes. Where’d he get the recipe? Well where do you get yours? They evolve. The Joy of Cooking-revised edition.
The recipe that baked us evolved over millions of years. Vishnu’s many lineages slaved over hot stoves preserving kitchen traditions. Brahma’s many mutants experimented with the recipes. Shiva’s many environmental constraints, awarded the prize of survival to the best cakes.
We, who have such a profound preference for seeing our works as our doing have a hard time noticing that with all good cakes, its not the baker, it’s the bake-off. Noticing the interplay of replication, variation and selection is a way to see the bake-off for a change. It reminds me of a line Yeats translated from the Upanishads, “No other way can prevent deeds from clinging, proud as you are of your human life.” They’ll cling anyway, but it’s nice to get a peek.
One thing to notice about evolutions holy trinity: replication, variation and selection work at cross purposes to each other in a healthy, troubled, and inescapable tension.
Vishnu is for preserving the pattern, while Brahma is for changing it. Shiva is the impartial reality-check, while Vishnu is life longing for itself. The selective chooses the most efficient ways of doing things, while the creative has to be free to make mistakes, and the preserver prefers to just persist and survive.
It would be very nice if the gods all wanted the same thing and could work together in perfect harmony. There is harmony, but not to our ears. While they are at rancorous cross-purposes, these three cooks don’t spoil the broth. In fact, they turned the original broth of organic chemicals into stuff as fancy as you. And in you they continue to work, preferring both preference and truth–persevering, creating and destroying.
Think of the bake-offs in your life. If you have ever tried to do anything at all–write an essay, raise a kid, pay for supper, find a mate–you will have found yourself embodying all three of the evolutionary basics. Writing this, I’m creating, destroying, and persisting. I’m negotiating with myself and winning! (Oops. And losing)
As the preserver, you embody commitment, the Great Tradition, persistence, focus, a plan. You embody the preference for one cake recipe over another. As the creative, you embody an openness to innovation–a preference to bake something new. As the selector, you reject the cake that tastes bad, even though your rejection is a disappointment to the baker. If you have ever tried something that has failed, you have met Shiva, the selector. Nothing personal.
Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing. The truth that waits is Shiva–the reality check. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes its even you bearing disappointing news for the creative and the preserver you also embody, longing to be right. No wonder we are all so good at keeping the truth at bay. No wonder we so often represent our longings as though they were the truth itself.
When we wake up–in meditation for example–to the inner dialogue between these three gods, we can be disappointed by how far short our recipe falls from what we wanted to taste. Here evolutionary theory is also a help. It reminds us that we did not fall from grace, we rose from slime, steeped slowly in a dented pot on a messy stove, with cooks whose persistent tensions live within us to this day.